Now here’s the wide open NFC side.
Byes: Philadelphia Eagles (13-3), Minnesota Vikings (13-3)
Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at Los Angeles Rams (11-5) 8:15PM ET (NBC)
The defending NFC champ Falcons had to win to insure a playoff spot as a wild card. Though their offensive numbers weren’t as huge as there were last season, they were pretty decent. Quarterback Matt Ryan will face a fierce Rams pass rush. His number one guy to throw to, Pro Bowler Julio Jones is banged up with an ankle and thumb injuries. Fellow receiver Taylor Gabriel is questionable with a hamstring injury, as well Pro Bowler Alex Mack with a strained calf. The Falcons may have to depend on running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman for offense.
The defense finished top ten overall. Linebacker Deion Jones, who finished top ten in tackles, is one of the best pass rushers in the league that you may not know about. Don’t forget about fellow linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. They also have a solid secondary led by cornerback Desmond Trufant and safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen.
Where to start with the Rams? They’ve had the talent for the last couple of season but now it’s paying dividends. They went from worst to first in the NFC West. They also went from the lowest scoring team in the league last season to the highest. Oh, they also ended a 12-year playoff drought. Of course, first-year head coach Sean McVay deserve most of the credit. Quarterback Jared Goff threw for 28 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. Pro Bowler and MVP front-runner Todd Gurley finished second in the league in rushing. There’s also a stacked group of wide receivers led by Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.
The defense is led by a nice mixture of youth and experience. Pro Bowler Aaron Donald leads a ferocious pass rush. Linebackers Connor Barwin, Robert Quinn and Alec Ogletree will try to put pressure on Ryan. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson and safety Lamarcus Joyner will be task to slow down the Falcons’ receivers.
Carolina Panthers (11-5) at New Orleans Saints (11-5) 4:40PM ET (FOX)
This will be the third meeting between these NFC South rivals. Saints won both meetings, week three 34-13 in Carolina and week 13, 31-21 in New Orleans.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was sacked 35 times this year, so his offensive line needs to keep him upright if the Panthers want to advance. If running back Jonathan Stewart is close to 100%, he and rookie Christian McCaffery are a solid tandem. Newton will also need his playmakers: receiver Devin Funchess and tight end Greg Olson to step up as well.
The defense finished top ten once again, but they gave up too many big plays in both meetings with the Saints. Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, and fellow linebackers Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson and tackle Kawann Short will try and slow down the Saints offense. While the secondary must try and force turnovers.
As for the Saints, the offense finished second only to the New England Patriots in total offense. They also ranked top five in points. Pro Bowler Drew Brees became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw over 70,000 career yards. Pro Bowler Michael Thomas was top ten in receiving yards and is Brees’ top target. Pro Bowl running backs Mark Ingram who finished top five in rushing yards, and rookie Alvin Kamara have given defense fits all season.
The defense went from much maligned to respectable. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan was top five in sacks, and is one of the league’s top pass rushers. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore has proved he can go head-to-head with top receivers, landing himself a Pro Bowl spot.
This should be a great weekend, enjoy!!